Field Studies: The Best Tool to Discover User Needs

by Jared M. Spool

The most valuable asset of a successful design team is the information they have about their users. When teams have the right information, the job of designing a powerful, intuitive, easy-to-use interface becomes tremendously easier. When they don’t, every little design decision becomes a struggle.

While techniques, such as focus groups, usability tests, and surveys, can lead to valuable insights, the most powerful tool in the toolbox is the ‘field study’. Field studies get the team immersed in the environment of their users and allow them to observe critical details for which there is no other way of discovering.

Field Studies in Action

Over the years, we’ve conducted many field studies for our clients. In each study, we’ve learned amazing things about how people behave, giving us incredible insight into how we should design interfaces for use.

  • We’ve watched people shopping in malls, giving us insight into how they manage shopping lists and purchase items on impulse. From this we’ve learned a lot to guide successful e-commerce designs.
  • We’ve spent weeks sitting alongside system administrators, watching how they interact with software documentation as they solve problems and maintain systems. We garnered new perspectives on the roles of printed and online documentation, helping us understand the unique problems that each medium favors.
  • We’ve followed paperwork through large manufacturing facilities, seeing who touched it and what they needed from it. From this, we learned the subtleties of the manufacturing information and how the seemingly minor actions of one person in the factory (such as leaving an ‘unimportant’ field blank) can have dramatic affects on the efficiency of other people later on. Seeing how people interacted with each other using the paperwork gave us a greater understanding of the intricacies of implementing enterprise-wide information systems.

While field studies are one of the most expensive techniques to implement, the value they return is tremendous. We’ve never come back from a study thinking we’ve wasted our time and resources. A quality 6-day study can produce enough information to keep a team busy for months.

The Power of Field Studies

Even a short field study, such as two or three half-day visits, can yield tremendous value. From these we can learn:

  • Terminology and processes: What do users do and how do they talk about it? While users can describe a process or share terms in an interview format, watching them work points out subtleties that they are unaware of.
  • Context: What are the external forces that will impact the design? Do the user’s requirements change when they are rushed or up against a deadline? People have trouble describing the context of their work, however it’s easy for outsiders to observe.
  • Similarities and differences: Visiting multiple sites can allow the team to collect a rich amount of information about the commonalities that appear across environments, along with the variations that will impact design decisions (such as providing switches, options, and optional features). Just compiling a list of similarities and differences observed in 4 separate visits can really help a team focus on the critical functionality and requirements for a project.

Field studies give the advantage of delivering the team information they just can’t get in any other way:

  • Users can’t describe activities that they don’t focus on. When you have an audience that is experienced at what they do, they often don’t pay attention to the small steps involved. An outside observer will see these “unspeakables” and can document them in ways that the participants can’t. It’s these details that will make the user experience feel natural and well considered.
  • Innovation happens when the designers get direct exposure to the users’ entire context and its subtle variations and accidental similarities. Some of the most innovative designs in the last 5 years are the result of paying attention to the little details in the user’s context.
  • ‘Intuitive’ interfaces are easier to build when designers have a deep understanding of the users’ context, terminology, and processes. It’s the combination of these three elements that make an interface seem intuitive, because the familiarity to users is already built in.

The biggest downside to field studies is the cost to the organization. Scheduling the visits, taking team members out of the office for several days, and finishing the analysis can have a huge impact on a project’s resources.

The most successful organizations look beyond the current project, realizing that the value from the information learned will feed into future projects for years to come. Using this perspective, they amortize the costs across many development projects and it becomes an extremely cost effective method for gathering critical information.

When we look at teams that are struggling to produce quality designs, almost always it is the result of spending time guessing and estimating user needs instead of working with actual data. Field studies can eliminate ‘opinion wars’ by replacing the strongly-held hunches of the team members with real information that describes what is happening. This is probably the biggest benefit that teams see.

Some organizations go so far as to ensure that every design team member visits at least one user every 4 months. This constant exposure to the users’ context changes the way teams interact, making the focus less on validation of information and more on creativity and solving users’ problems.

The results from a successful set of visits will feed directly into persona development, information architecture, workflows, use cases, and requirements for the project. Teams that conduct visits find that they use these results consistently through many different projects.

When we look at how the most usable designs were developed, we see one commonality across all the teams involved: they all had the critical information they needed to create these incredible results. Field studies are the most effective technique we’ve found at getting that critical information.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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